Mark Roosevelt Featured

8:00pm EDT October 28, 2006
 When Mark Roosevelt arrived at the Pittsburgh Public Schools, he faced the challenge of overseeing an organization that had failed to keep up with the changes in the world around it.

So the new superintendent began putting together a plan to close schools, cut expenses and substantially raise the level of instruction and academic performance in the organization with a $545 million annual budget, and he’s still making changes today.

Roosevelt spoke with Smart Business about how to keep an organization moving, get things done quickly and be willing to sweep up things that get broken.

Don’t allow the organization to stand still.
I keep it moving. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but in an organization like this, I think its natural state is inertia, and unless you keep pushing and prodding and cajoling, literally every day, it will revert to its natural state.

Constant motion is necessary, not motion for the sake of motion, but constant driving, just pushing and getting people to realize that this isn’t going away, and this accountability agenda isn’t going away. School cultures long ago learned that they can wait out waves of reform, and you’ve got to create the impression that you’re not going to wait this one out; you’re either going to be part of this one or step aside.

There’s a difficulty in moving the process in a way that can implement change in the way that it needs implemented. A lot of the folks here worked their whole lives for the Pittsburgh public schools. That has some disadvantages. If I look at my top management people now, there’s only one person in my senior cabinet that was here when I got here. And I think that was necessary.

Encourage people to act.
I look for a can-do attitude. There are a lot of other things that they need but mainly a can-do attitude, a desire to make things happen. You can feel that quite quickly. Some of my people have a very can-do attitude, and I end up sweeping up glass behind them. That’s part of my job. I’d rather have that right now than a little too much respect for the old china that’s on the table.

Act quickly.
I like to think that I have a reasonable balance between being deliberative and acting quickly. Partly, it’s how much time you have to make a decision. I’d rather make a mistake of commission than of omission. I’d rather act and have to re-evaluate than passively sit by and not act.

Hash and rehash the important issues.
We usually hash things out at length. I got here in August, we had a plan for closing schools in November, it was passed by the board in February. To me, school closings was the act by which we earned the leadership of the district, the community’s faith that we had the capacity to do this job. We had hundreds of hours of meetings where we rehashed issues that seemingly had been hashed weeks before. The reason I like that is I think people need to feel free to say, ‘Oh, have we thought about that?’ So I probably induced more internal second-guessing, relooking, recalculating than some might have thought. I think, in the end, it pays off.

Let your actions speak for you.
It’s more having them see us act. That’s far more convincing. We’ve had lots of meetings, brought people in, but I think more of it is, ‘Hey, move over,’ and they see you moving.

Some people may be nervous about their jobs, but I’d like to create a culture in which if you’re not interested in being a part of a performance-based operation, you’ll feel more comfortable going elsewhere. Accountability is very high on my list, and that’s one of the underpinnings of the culture change. Without a reasonable and reasonably speedy accountability, the culture change won’t happen.

Create a performance-based culture.
If you asked me what the umbrella under which it all falls is, it’s culture change, trying to create a culture here that is performance-based, and that’s the largest challenge and the mission.

Culture change, no question about it, has been the biggest challenge. To me, there are a lot of specific changes. There’s curriculum change, there’s professional development for teachers and principals. The principals, they weren’t even doing it here. For teachers, it was incoherent and not cohesive.

The fun is in getting things done, the human interaction. The nice advantage that we have ... is that the work matters tremendously. I think if people feel progress being made, that’s the fun part.

Give people the benefit of the doubt.
I usually give people the benefit of the doubt, especially if they’re loyal and decent human beings, a couple of chances on that road. Some people internally may perceive that differently than people do externally.

Externally, they see change happening so fast some of my board members are saying, ‘Whoa, slow down.’ But internally, I do believe that people deserve the benefit of the doubt, so I’m perhaps a little more slow to determine that somebody can’t cut it.

HOW TO REACH: Pittsburgh Public Schools, www.pps.k12.pa.us